100 years ago today marked the beginning of the last major German offensive of the first World War. Since 1914, the Central Powers had been locked in an effective stalemate with the Allied Powers across the Western Front. Each side tried to find creative ways to break that stalemate, and for the most part, each side failed. They tried to outflank each other, but they ran into the North Sea on one end of the line and the Alps on the other. They tried concentrating their forces in one massive attacks. They tried attacking everywhere at once. They tried small teams of fast moving “infiltration forces”. They invented tanks. They invented poison gas. They developed better and better planes. Nothing worked, and even after 3 and a half years of bloody war, neither side seemed any closer to victory, but by mid-1917, the Allies could do one thing the Central Powers could not; replace their casualties. By 1918, 10,000 American troops per day were streaming into the Continent, and the Germans knew that the war would quickly become unwinnable if they didn’t deliver a knockout blow.
The German plan, code named “Operation Michael”, involved one of the biggest buildups of troops, artillery and aircraft ever assembled and incredibly, it was pulled off in relative secrecy. They camouflaged their guns. They ran their trains at night. Troops were forbidden from using fire to cook their food because the light might alert the enemy to their numbers. When the attack began on March 21st, the Germans were able to achieve what neither side had been able to do on the Western Front since 1914: a breakthrough. Within days they had reversed the losses of the Battle of the Somme; land that had cost the British a half a million men in 1916. When all was said and done, the Germans had captured 1200 square miles of territory and 75,000 British prisoners. The success of Operation Michael had exceeded the wildest expectations of the German high command and it turned out to be the turning point of the war… for the Allies.
The problem with Operation Michael was that despite brilliant tactics and superb organization, it lacked a grand strategy. For all the land they captured, the Germans captured few strategic targets. With their fast progress, they outstripped their supply lines. Units of soldiers became isolated and easily picked off as soon as the Allied forces were able to regroup. Though the Germans would be able to mount a series of smaller offensives in the Spring of 1918, each would be substantially less powerful. With hundreds of thousands of casualties, the Germans were unable to mount an effective defense against the inevitable Allied counter-attack and they were forced into a steady retreat until the Armistice was signed in November 1918.
So why the history lesson, you might ask? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about bike racing? As it turns out, many individual bike racers and cycling teams make the same mistake that the Germans made in 1918: all tactics, but no strategy.
In the context of bike racing, tactics is mostly about how you use your energy and use the energy of the peloton to your advantage. Think of your energy like currency. Some people have more than others, but no one has an infinite amount. We all make choices about how we spend or save it. When we attack in a bike race, it “costs” a lot, and if the attack doesn’t materialize into a successful breakaway, it might very well lead to bankruptcy. When we sit in, find a better person to draft, avoid hitting our brakes excessively, take better lines and stay out of the wind, we save our energy, but we also risk missing opportunities.
Bike racing tactics are not very complicated, though they can be difficult to execute. I boil tactics down to 3 basic rules:
Know when you need to be at the front of the pack, and get there.
Know when you can relax, and relax.
Attack when it’s hard, preferably when it’s hard but about to get easier.
Of course, bike handling skills come into play because good bike handling will allow you to slow down less around turns and other obstacles, move through a pack efficiently, stay out of the wind and stay out of trouble. Learning how to read the pack is also critical because a rider who reads the pack well can use its energy and momentum as one would ride a wave.
Equipment selection, tire pressure, clothing choices, how many gels, chews, bars and bottles you consume during a race also fall into the tactics column. Tactics is the line you take around a turn. It is the choice of the “A line” or “B line”. It is choosing to go all out or to hold back at the start of a mountain bike race. It is the choice between riding at the front, back or middle of a small group in a cyclocross race. It is choosing to run or bunny hop the barriers.
There are also “team tactics”, such as lead outs, chases, counter attacks and setting tempo.
Tactics are very important, but tactics alone do not win you race. To win, you have to have a strategy and that strategy is enabled by solid tactics. Now, a strategy does not necessary have to be complicated and the strategy can certainly change during the race. Here are some examples of simple bike racing strategies:
Sit in, ignore all attacks and breakaways, start moving up in the last 5k, try to come through the last turn in the top 5 and sprint.
Look to get in a breakaway after the decisive climb, attack the breakaway in the last 5k.
Put your team at the front in the crosswind sections and rip apart the field. Then start attacking aggressively until you have a small break with multiple teammates in it.
Go with every attack made when the pace is hard. Only start working when most of the strong teams are represented.
In a stage race, win the time trial, make all the splits on the mass-start stages and pick up a few time bonuses
In a criterium, look to go with a breakaway in the first third of the race, recover in the middle and look for splits in the last third.
In a points race, try to finish in the top 3 of each sprint.
In a cyclocross race, get the hole-shot, then try to recover a little bit, stay with the lead group and outsprint them in the final stretch.
There are lots of strategies. Some are good and some are not so good. Some of them seem good at first, but not so good in hindsight. Some are more aggressive and some are more passive. Some are extremely detailed and some are very basic. Some involve individual riders taking advantages of opportunities and some involve teams creating opportunities.
With experience you will learn to refine your strategies and to allow your strategies to be more responsive to changing conditions in races. You will learn to better cater your strategies to your individual strengths and the strengths of your team. Whatever your strategy is though, it should always be a strategy to win. You don’t jump in a race, ride along, and then suddenly find yourself off the front soloing to victory. If you have a strategy to win, you will win sometimes. If you have no strategy, you will never win.
As you gain experience and start to refine your strategy, don’t fall into the trap of confusing strategy and tactics. It’s easier to do than you might think. Here are some examples:
Brooke has a strategy to sit in and sprint. The race comes down to a sprint but she is too far back and gets boxed in. The problem here is tactics (positioning). The strategy was probably the right one, given that the race came down to a field sprint. Riders who find themselves uncomfortable in large pack sprints may be tempted to change the dynamic of the race by racing more aggressively and taking the sprint out of the equation, but this is usually either stupid, arrogant, or both. A smart rider recognizes her limitations and looks for opportunities rather than trying to force the issue against the will of the pack. This is not to say that there aren’t opportunities for attacks, just that a smart rider can see the hidden door in the wall and walk through it when others try to smash through the wall with brute force.
Chad has a strategy to attack the third time over the climb. The pack is going easy into the climb and he attacks and gets a gap, but is chased down by the field. Shortly afterwards, the winning move goes but Chad is too tired to go with it because he is tired from the first attack. This is an example of a poor tactics (Chad failed to read the race, attacking when it was easy, rather than hard) but also of a poor strategy, because the strategy was too rigid and wasn’t flexible enough to account for changing conditions in the race. Where there is a hill, there is often an opportunity to attack, but if the pace isn’t hard going into the hill, even the strongest attack may not be enough, due to the fact that the pack can easily recover and reorganize afterwards. It’s important to know the course, but at the end of the day, it’s the riders who make the race.
Maria researches the course in detail. She knows every place where she has to be at the front, and every place she can relax. She follows her nutritional plan perfectly and she makes every split. She winds up in the lead group but get outsprinted at the finish. Here, just like the German Army of 1918, she employed excellent tactics, but lacked a winning strategy. For a rider confident in her sprinting ability, making all the splits and then sprinting might be the right strategy, but if this is not the case, throwing in an attack or two is the smarter move. Even if the move didn’t stick, she might succeed in dropping or pacifying the sprinters in her group. In the moment, it can be tough to fight the thoughts of “If I attack, it’s going to hurt”, and “If it doesn’t work, I might get dropped from the group” but at the end of the day, if you want to win you must risk losing.
History is filled with examples of tactics without strategy or strategy without tactics. A pattern is clear; tactics and strategy are both important, but if given the choice, it’s also better to have a good strategy. In other words, it’s better to lose every battle and win the war than to win every battle and lose the war.
Luckily, bike racing is not war. In most cases the worst thing that can happen is that you lose the race, then you get back out there and try again next time. Most of the time you lose, but every once in a while, with the right strategy, enabled by solid tactics, a little strength and a little luck… you win.